year in culture 2017

The 10 Best Songs of 2017

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and YouTube

Playboi Carti, “Magnolia”

Playboi Carti’s chaotic, sloppy “Magnolia” is very much a product of 2017 — a weightless jam that sounds like it was made in one take with a Casio keyboard and some sort of dollar store flute. It’s joyful, not that deep, and the kind of thing you can listen to literally six million times before you get tired of it (I did not try to listen to it six million times but that seems like the ceiling). It’s hard to tell if it’ll stand the test of time, but that’s not really the point. Listen to it because it sounds great right now. —Sam Hockley-Smith

Tyler, the Creator, “911/Mr Lonely”

On his best album yet, Tyler, the Creator bares his soul. He’s never alone, but he’s the “loneliest man alive.” Two-parter “911/Mr. Lonely” is the most crowded song on the album — Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky, Schoolboy Q, Steve Lacey, and Anna of the North all show up — but they’re no remedy for Tyler’s severe isolation. For years, Tyler (deservedly) got a bad rap for being rap’s newest menace. Older and with a better handle on his mental state, he explains it’s all been a front: “I say the loudest in the room is prolly the loneliest one in the room (that’s me) / Attention seeker, public speaker.” He doesn’t have to dial 911; the cry for help can be heard loud and clear. —Dee Lockett

Future, “Solo”

There’s a certain buoyancy in Future’s voice that’s irrepressible. Even at his grimiest and darkest moments, the point never comes where “despair” becomes a word that suits him. He’s a survivor, and he knows it; his confidence in his capacity to maintain his poise never wavers. Charisma attracts (what would it be if it didn’t?) but it had been some time for the Atlanta legend since he’d been more than attractive, meaning active, inviting. The R&B Future that shone through on Pluto and Honest seemed to be locked down forever, buried under an impenetrable mass of legal wrangling, justified resentment, and lean-induced numbness. Then HNDRXX came, an album so resplendent in sound and tone that even regret and loss were charged with colorful heat. “Solo” may or may not be the best track on the album — there’s lots of brilliant competition — but it’s likely the most representative. Calm, affectionate, luxurious, and endowed with the effortless profound delivery of a master, the song is a reminder that, even in the midst of punishing ordeals, delight can still take precedence over disappointment. “Mask Off” was the bigger hit, but “Solo” and its album are the real highlight for Future this year. —Frank Guan

Sampha, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”

It should come as no surprise that Sampha has written the year’s most devastating ballad. His stunning debut album Process mourned the loss of his mother to cancer two years ago, and “Piano” remains its purest elegy. It’s a good-bye letter to both Sampha’s childhood in London and to his mother, who was the only one who predicted and financially supported — she purchased the family piano heard on this song — his musical genius. In the companion film for the album, Sampha revealed he played “Piano” at her funeral. I can’t think of a braver act in music this year than choosing to make such a private memorial public, so that even those who never knew her can honor her legacy for years to come. —DL

SZA, “20 Something”

Age defines so much. As a teen, you think that’s all you’ll ever amount to. Spoiler: The self-doubt only doubles in your 20s. Maybe 2017 breakout star SZA will feel stuck in her 50-somethings when she gets there, but, for now, the 27-year-old is fixated on being a 20-something. The final song on her debut album, Ctrl, is an acoustic meditation on this specific decade of life where you’re expected to start finding your way, despite anyone who’s lived through it knowing you seldom do. Every decision, no matter how big or small, seems to carry a mammoth weight of failure and disappointment with it — “Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me,” she sings, mirroring Frank Ocean’s best Blonde vocals — alleviated by brief moments of living selfishly. Such moments might stink of entitlement or laziness to generations who forgot the damage these years do to the psyche, but SZA’s wise enough to know they’re what it takes to make it out of your 20s alive. —DL

Kelela, “LMK”

The implicit promise of Kelela was always clear: she would explore what would happen if someone dedicated themselves wholly to experimental R&B, and it’s what she’s done. But what is most surprising about “LMK,” a breezy song about attraction at first sight, and the standout from the dusky Take Me Apart, is how it internalized so much of that experimentation. On it, she and producer Jam City wield empty space like a weapon, her voice weaving between his crystalline synth pings. It sounds like an idealized version of ’90s R&B, which is to say it sounds like the future without making a whole thing out of it. —SHS

Lorde, “Supercut”

Melodrama will be remembered as a great excavating of the young heart at a time when it was most splintered. To make it whole again, you have to pick up the pieces and fit them a new way. That’s “Supercut” — a misshapen puzzle whose beauty is greater for its flaws. Lorde found love, lost it, but will never forget it. It’s naïve to think only of the good times in a relationship, but love is fickle and being 19 — the age Lorde was when she wrote this album — affords fantasy. “Supercut” doesn’t try to sell lies, just the memory of Lorde’s truth. It’s a joy to hear her hold onto it. –DL

Cardi B, “Bodak Yellow”

Having enemies is pretty much mandatory by now. Even if you’re not looking for conflict with anyone, someone out there’s looking for conflict with you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or didn’t do. People are going to hate your guts, and the only thing you can do is decide whether to ignore them or confront them. If the latter is the case, “Bodak Yellow” has been the go-to song on what to do next. The beat paces back and forth like a panther, and Cardi’s lyrics drip with refined, acidulous scorn: there’s absolutely nothing that her foe does that she doesn’t do better. Money? She has more. Work? She does more. Your boyfriend? Her boy toy. This song is for anyone who likes rap but dislikes certain other people, but it’s especially for women who dislike certain other women. Whoever loses, Cardi wins — her, and Christian Louboutin, whose scarlet-bottomed stiletto heels have, thanks to Cardi’s “Bodak” chorus, seen a spike in sales every bit as sharp as the heels themselves. —FG

Kendrick Lamar, “FEAR”

“FEAR” is basically Kendrick Lamar’s thesis statement: A nearly eight-minute exploration of his entire career, family, and the paranoia that comes with being a famous person who can’t ever get comfortable with the fickle nature of fame. It’s a brilliant slow burner that succeeds on the back of Kendrick’s remarkable writing ability. The song is panoramic, but personal. This is very much a song about Kendrick Lamar’s life. It’s not my life and it’s not your life, but he succeeds because he’s able to make his world — a world that most of us will never come close to experiencing — into something relatable. We’ve all been paranoid. We’ve all been scared. And we’ve all been unsure about how everything is supposed to play out. It takes a rare talent to internalize these complex ideas and then spit them back so vividly. The weirdest part? Kendrick’s frustration on “FEAR” is palpable, but it’s also comforting. Just knowing he’s out there, putting songs like this together is inspiring. —SHS

Lil Uzi Vert, “XO Tour Llif3”

“XO Tour Llif3” did a hell of a lot in three minutes. For one thing, it made people want to listen to it all over again. At the time of writing, the song’s been streamed nearly 148 million times on SoundCloud, where it was first released: that’s 843 years’ worth of “Llif3” even before you count the millions of streams from Spotify and all the rest. This song marks the point where streaming stopped being one avenue of distribution and started being the only way to make waves. Not coincidentally, it also marks the point where rap music swallowed rock music whole. There are no guitars on TM88’s woozy, drippy, doom-laden instrumental, but the tone in Uzi’s lyrics is pitch-perfect pop-punk; from now on, the only way to make rock music that youth listeners would flock to in the millions (and what’s rock music without millions of enthusiastic youth?) would be to make rap music. You could fuse 808 Mafia with Blink-182 and leave nothing behind; think Dashboard Confessional, but on the white dashboard of a red Phantom. (The XO of the title nods to the Weeknd, whose original brand of drug-inflected, disastrous-romance music is a clear influence on the focus of the song, though Uzi’s taking drugs to numb the pain of a breakup rather than sustain an otherwise unsustainable bond.)

But the reason this song is the song of the year is because of the death angle. Even if you don’t think 2017 was the year of the dead, you’d be hard-pressed not to admit that there’s something very spectral about it. There’s a sense that anything can happen because nothing is real. It’s as if the universe were a room with a high view and the room — not just anyone in it, but the entire room — had jumped out the window. If you are your friends and all your friends are dead, what does that make you? Things have yet to hit the bottom, but there’s no longer any way one can arrest the fall: That’s what 2017 has been, and that’s what “XO Tour Llif3” sounds like. It’s music for the afterlife. —FG

The 10 Best Songs of 2017